Nuevomexicanos, the Pueblo, and the Atomic Age

When Spanish settlers came to Mexico in the early 16th century, they moved northward, and by 1598 some had settled in the present state of New Mexico, USA. Many of them weren’t Spanish, actually, and they had various religious backgrounds. They had roots in various regions of Europe and North Africa. In order to participate in the voyages of Spain they had to speak Spanish and identify themselves as Christians, but some of them secretly kept traditions of their religions, Islam and Judaism, in the privacy of their homes.
The historian Larry Torres says the descendants of these early settlers, referred to as Nuevomexicanos, missed the social changes that happened in European culture over the following centuries. In a sense, they are a living time capsule. They had no contact with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution. Their religion, their traditions, and their customs are from the Middle Ages. This culture is still reflected in the language, which is a kind of Spanish that is 300 years out of fashion. Scholars from Spain have come to New Mexico to study the language that was spoken by the great Spanish novelist Cervantes (1547-1616). But what happens when you have a society that suddenly time travels from the Middle Ages to the Atomic Age?

Nuevomexicano history is often misunderstood. For most Americans, the nation’s history begins on the East Coast where the settlers from Holland and the British Isles first arrived. After that, it is a story of continual westward expansion. However, when Americans from the northeast arrived in New Mexico in the 19th century, they encountered a Spanish-speaking culture that had already been there for 250 years. Even today, many Americans are surprised to learn that there is a European culture in the USA that was in America before the first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621.
When the Nuevomexicanos met the migrants coming from the east, they had never seen factories or trains. Their lifestyle was not much different than that of the first peoples of the region, the Pueblo, whom the easterners referred to as “Indians.” The word Pueblo itself is a blanket Spanish term for diverse groups such as the Hopi, Zuni and many others. The Nuevomexicanos co-existed relatively well with the Pueblo compared to the relationship that developed between the Pueblo and the modern Americans.
The arrival of newcomers in New Mexico was a brutal transition for Spanish and Pueblo cultures. Migrants brought with them banks, factories, roads and railways—all the trappings of a way of life that depended on money and working for wages. The newcomers refused to recognize the existing titles proving ownership of the land.
Life in New Mexico became stranger still when the Manhattan Project came to the small town of Los Alamos in 1943. This was the top secret project to build the first atom bombs. Suddenly, people with a pre-industrial culture found themselves working in the high-tech future. While the best jobs went to scientists and engineers from elsewhere in America, the Nuevomexicanos took jobs lower down in the organization. Many national defense and advanced technology centers still operate in the state, and the economy is heavily dependent on this sector.  
A resident of a village called Truchas compared his town with Los Alamos. Both towns are at the same elevation, directly across from one another, but one is living in the 19th century, while the other is in the 21st and planning for the 22nd century. In Truchas, people are just trying to get enough food to eat, making a living off the land. In Los Alamos, you have people who are thinking about space travel and long-term management of nuclear waste, which would be incomprehensible to the villagers living in Truchas.
Nuevomexicanos have an intense commitment to their cultural history. They know their culture has evolved independently since 1598. They have a unique adaptation to modernity that outsiders are not likely to appreciate. In addition to the original settlers, there has been legal and illegal immigration from Mexico, Central America and South America, so the English speaking people of New Mexico, whose ancestors arrived recently in the 19th century, are likely to think of Spanish-speakers as foreigners. They often insist that the newcomers should learn English and adapt to American society, yet they easily forget that the Nuevomexicanos and Pueblo were there first.
Anthropologists say that the region hosts a clash of three cultures: that of the Pueblo, the Nuevomexicanos and the modern military state. They note also the irony in the fact that all three of these cultures are difficult for them to study because they all place a high value on secrecy. The sacred sites of the Pueblo have meanings that outsiders can never understand, the Nuevomexicanos have secret religious rituals, and the scientific laboratories guard the national secrets of nuclear weapons.

Elements of these three cultures are on display in a work of art by Nicholas Herrera called Los Alamos Death Truck. The Pueblo emphasize the sacredness of their land, while the Nuevomexicanos’ religious rituals stress the need for people to be spiritually prepared for death. When Herrera created the sculpture Los Alamos Death Truck, the hybrid culture of the region was on display. It also seemed to combine elements of Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead. It consisted of an old pickup truck loaded with canisters marked as nuclear waste, with a skeleton driving the truck and a devil on the back platform threatening to throw the canisters onto the road. This simple work of art has elements from the three cultures of New Mexico, and it represents human history from hunter-gathering to agriculture, to the industrial era and finally to the uncertainties of the Atomic Age.

Further reading:

 Adapted from these sources:

Joseph Masco, Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006), 165-168.

Lois Palken Rudnick, Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture (University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 336.

(This text may look like an entry in a textbook for language learners, and that's actually what it was written for, but it was rejected because its reference to things nuclear was considered problematic.)

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